While Australia collectively sighs at the longest and most lukewarm election in living memory, meat workers and their families around the country are continuing to suffer under a two-pronged attack from live exports and visa-exploiting bosses.
Despite hard campaigning from the Meat Workers Union and overwhelming evidence that the live export trade is riddled with systemic animal cruelty, both major parties are committed to supporting this harmful industry at a time when local workers and local communities are falling apart from financial hardship.
In the last 30 years, more than 40,000 meat processing jobs in Australia have disappeared. The industry is now on its knees, with the national cattle herd sitting at one of the lowest points on record.
Shortages hit home
Here in Northern NSW, we spend every day talking to worried workers who have had their work cut back or been stood down altogether because the cattle simply aren’t there.
155 meat workers have lost their jobs at Scone due to cattle shortages, with the remaining 350 cut back to just four days a week. The story is the same at Inverell, where 100 workers were laid off and the rest pushed back to four, or even three days a week in some cases.
Wingham Beef will shut down completely for two weeks. Teys are moving to a nine-day fortnight. The Northern Casino meat works is operating on a four-day week, and has not had full production for the last seven months in the face of seemingly never-ending cattle shortages.
But it’s not just here in NSW. Across the border in Queensland, 500 meat workers have been laid off at Dinmore, Queensland’s largest meat processing plant. 80 workers just lost their jobs in Wallangarra.
Taking a 20% pay cut might not be a big deal to some people – but when you’re talking about low-income earners where the average wage is around $38,000, losing one day’s pay each week hits hard.
Every single Australian animal that is sent overseas to be inhumanely, cruelly, and cheaply processed is work that could be used to look after Australians first.
With both major parties supporting the China Free Trade Agreement that will see another one million cattle exported live out of our already dangerously low cattle herd every year, Australian meat workers are afraid. They’re afraid of what these shortages mean for their families and their futures. And they’re afraid that nobody in power seems to be listening.
Exploited internationals, unemployed locals
Working four days a week is still preferable to having no work at all, which is where many local meat workers now find themselves as bosses increasingly turn to 457 and 402 visa holders instead.
Visa workers are infinitely preferable to locals for a number of reasons: they don’t speak English, some are forced to class themselves as “contractors” and charge less than a local would, and if they cause any trouble you can have them deported in a hurry. In an industry where some major companies are trying to squeeze every dollar out of every animal they can, having a workforce you can readily exploit is very appealing.
When there is a genuine need to bring in skilled workers from overseas, the Meat Workers Union stands proudly behind it – and we’ve helped thousands of overseas workers recover millions in unpaid wages. But it’s clear to see in places like New England, where the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 19%, that this approach of prioritising international workers over locals is sending the community into an economic tailspin where kids have no hope of a stable future.
We’ve been calling on people like Barnaby Joyce to force companies into genuine, independent local labour market testing – so that companies have to look for a protected, well-paid local first before sending overseas for somebody they can exploit. Those calls, much like the cries for help from meat workers themselves, have been ignored.
As Australia’s new Government awkwardly settles into power for the next three years, the time is right to call or email your local member and ask them: What are you doing about the crisis in Australia’s meat processing industry? Will you stand up and say something about the barbaric live export trade?
Or are you, like Barnaby Joyce, too busy enjoying free flights around the country from a big live export supplier?
Header image via Flickr.